My first big break in auto racing came at the expense of someone’s life. But I took it.
You have to have that attitude in racing. Sometimes you lose because your clutch cable breaks or your tire blows, and sometimes you win because disasters strike faster teams. No asterisks get posted next to those wins, no explanations. It’s just racing. Sometimes you have it rough, and sometimes you get lucky.
On this day, I got lucky and the driver I replaced…“unlucky” would be an understatement. We’re talking about murder.
I knew I’d endure weeks of sideways glances and sneers for a couple reasons. First, I’d be labeled an opportunist. It wouldn’t be personal, because any driver hired as a replacement would receive the same treatment. Second, my skills—or lack thereof. “She could only get a ride by someone dropping dead.” I’d have the last laugh from the podium at those naysayers.
What I didn’t anticipate were the whispers that maybe I’d engineered my predecessor’s death to get the ride. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended, scared that someone who counted would believe them, or flattered that someone might think of me as ruthless.
I was female. I was twenty-four. I’d been steadily working my way up the auto racing food chain since I was twelve. I knew myself to be tenacious, aggressive, and stubborn. The racing world saw me as reserved and feminine, yet competent—and I worked hard for it. But the bottom line, to the good old boys of the racing world, was that I was too female to be ruthless.
I hadn’t heard those whispers yet, and I wasn’t thinking beyond the ride being handed to me on a silver platter. I was going to be paid to drive for one race, and maybe for the remainder of the season. Despite what followed, I’d make the same choice again in a heartbeat.
As usual, I’d gotten to the track early that morning. It was July, and the American Le Mans Series, or ALMS, was running at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Connecticut, for the Fourth of July weekend. ALMS cars ran in the finale of four days of racing and celebrations that comprised the New England Grand Prix. Due to a local regulation against engine noise on Sundays, the racing world’s standard race day, the main event would be run on Monday, July 5. Sunday would be a rare day off.
I was following the ALMS that year, traveling from race to race like the rest of the participants, though I didn’t have a ride or team. I’d given myself a year to break into this series, which featured two classes of recognizable sportscars and two classes of prototypes racing together on “road” courses—tracks with hills and turns of varying sharpness to the left and right. No NASCAR ovals. In past years, I’d driven in some of the other races that accompanied the ALMS race, and now I wanted in on the marquee event.
I hoped my presence would remind everyone I was available as a full-time, occasional, or one-time-only driver. I’d take anything. I daydreamed of being offered a permanent ride for an ALMS team, but never asked myself what would have to happen to the other guy first.
I was more likely to get a ride if I was on the spot than sitting at home, so here I was, pulling my twenty-year-old Jeep Cherokee into Lime Rock’s entrance on Saturday at 7:00 a.m., ready for the day of practice and qualifying.
I waved my Series ID at the sleepy attendant and drove through the main gate.
“Get some coffee!” My words prompted a smile and a wave before he closed his eyes again.
At that hour, he didn’t need to be alert. Only a trickle of cars was arriving at the track, most carrying people like me who had passes or tickets and knew where they were going. I drove across the creaky wooden bridge that spanned the racetrack and con- tinued past grass parking lots to my right. I slowed as I veered left and approached another attendant. She saw the parking pass I held up and waved me through.
A golf cart labored up the hill from the paddock as I cruised down, and I recognized the driver who angled toward me.
“Good morning! If it isn’t Kate Reilly!”
I stopped in the middle of the road and leaned out the window, pleased to see one of the two main SPEED Channel announcers. “Hey, Benny. I didn’t see you yesterday. What’s new this weekend?” “Nothing. Leastways nothing I know about. You gotten into any trouble here yet?” He liked to tease me about my efforts to scrounge up a living from the Series. Benny Stephens was the primary announcer, the journalist by training, of the broadcast team. His partner, Ian McAllister, was the racing expert, having driven and won in every kind of racecar, series, and track that existed. I enjoyed their stories from thirty years of experience in the racing world. In return, they liked my gumption—that was Ian’s word.
“Not yet. But I keep trying, Benny.”
“You heard anything I should know about?”
“Only that too many teams have forgotten how to race through corners for it to be a coincidence. But I’m sure you know more than I do.”
“That one’s a puzzler. I’ve heard rumors, but no answers yet.
Let me know what you hear, about that or anything else.” “Sure thing.” With a wave, I continued down the hill. Benny and Ian’s sources were a hell of a lot better than mine when it came to the Series grapevine, but I’d pass them whatever I heard. They were friends of mine, but I never forgot I was storing their goodwill for the day they’d report on me as a driver here, too.
I reached the bottom of the hill and turned right, heading toward the paddock. On impulse, I pulled over and turned off the engine. I was stopped in a strict no-parking zone, but I hopped out anyway and crossed the road, stopping at the fence that separated it from the pits. I curled my fingers into the chain link and took a deep breath. I loved this time of day at the track. Still some moist-earth smell and coolness from the thunderstorms the night before. Though I could hear noises from paddock garages, the racecars had yet to be fired up, and the birds had yet to be scared away.
A sense of impending action, possibility, and even tension hung in the air. These moments rejuvenated me. In them, I knew one day I’d drive the track as part of a professional team contending for a championship. One day I’d own this race. With a nod, I pushed off from the fence.
Back in my Jeep, I headed for a parking space at the far end of the infield. At Lime Rock, the paddock was located behind the pits along the front straight and in the interior of the one-and-a-half-mile track’s first turn, the big, sweeping horseshoe called Big Bend. Each team had a temporary garage setup along the paddock’s one-way loop road, where they could do everything from a tire change to an engine rebuild. At this race, the paddock loop wasn’t full of team setups, and the end of it was given over to general parking for passenger cars. I drove around until I found an open space on the grass, finally squeezing between an obvious white rental on my left and a black-and-white-checked oil drum turned into a trash barrel on my right. I was pointing at the end of the track’s Main Straight, separated from it by only a few yards of grass and another chain link fence.
My attention was half on the track and half on my parking job, and I jerked to a halt as I saw the trash barrel wiggle and felt a bump. I turned off the engine and sat looking at Big Bend. For the two hundred and thirty-seventh time I calculated where I’d brake from 160 miles an hour and start the turn. I’d ridden around the track with a friend in a rental car last season. I’d also walked every inch of it, but I’d yet to drive that straightaway at speed.
I pulled the keys from the ignition, slung the lanyard with my ID around my neck, and got out of the car. As I twisted the key in the lock, I looked at my reflection in the window, reaching up to smooth stray shoulder-length hairs. My hair was stick-straight and black, two characteristics that took too much time and too many salon products to bother changing. Hair, fine. Face, fine. Same fair skin and blue eyes as always, touched up with a bit of powder and mascara. I looked down at myself. Comfortable dark sneakers, clean jeans, short-sleeve, tan button-down shirt—this one logoed by VP Racing Fuels, a sponsor of the Star Mazda series. My sunglasses were on my head—though the sun had yet to break through the overcast. My black baseball hat from Jean Richard, the official timekeeper of the ALMS, was in the car, as was the weekend’s program and my all-important notebook, where I kept notes on drivers, cars, teams, and tracks. At least I look the part of the racing veteran, I thought.
I climbed onto my front bumper to look over the fence at the track, standing sideways, one foot in front of the other, and balancing with my fingers on the car’s hood. I twisted to look back at the empty pit row, and followed the Straight down to the turn, seeing more details of the track surface from my perch. I was starting to jump down when I noticed a pile of dark fabric on the ground next to the trash barrel. Under the front of my car. I stared at it longer than it deserved, not understanding why. Were there feet and shoes attached to the pile of cloth? My insides clutched. Part of a man’s body was under my bumper. I lost my balance and scrambled to the ground, knees wobbling.
I darted a glance under the car and saw my tire against the guy’s leg, but not on it. I hoped.
I swallowed, looked again. I wasn’t sure. I reached out a hand to shake his shoulder. No response. I tugged slightly, rolling him onto his back—then recoiled, cringing. Two facts were immediately clear. This was Corvette driver Wade Becker lying there. And Wade was very dead.
I froze. Then I heard my own ragged inhale as I turned and ran for help.